The Perfect Candidate
Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate begins with a medium close-up of a young woman in her car, robed in conservative dress. The brief sequence is a sly homage to Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi woman who inspired female participation in the Arab Spring uprising, by appearing on camera, driving her car. Women were not by law prevented from driving in Saudi Arabia in 2011, but their male relatives had to grant them permission. Al-Sharif took to activism in a fit of frustration, when as a divorcee, she was unable to renew her vehicle registration. Maryam, Al Mansour’s protagonist, drives an eye-popping blue car. She finds her “voice” when her travel document expires, and she cannot reach her father to renew it.
Dr. Maryam Abdulaziz’s (Mila Al Zahrani) morning drive ends on an unpaved road where a watery pothole awaits. Her shoes are muddied as she enters the clinic where she is an emergency physician. Maryam looks on as ambulance drivers struggle to guide a gurney, on which lies an elderly man, over the muck and into the small hospital. Although the man is in a great deal of pain, he refuses to be treated by a woman; hearing his raised voice, Maryam’s supervisor, Dr. Ghazi, accuses her of disturbing the patient, and tells the drivers to find the male nurses. After their departure, Maryam stands alone in the corridor. Then she turns to Dr. Ghazi and tells him she is taking time off for the upcoming holiday. He complains the clinic will be short-staffed, and Maryam points out that he can rely on the male nurses.
A quick shot follows of Maryam in the ladies room, gazing at herself in the mirror, her niqab loosened. It is a moment of introspection, sparked by her seemingly inconsequential act of rebellion. No girl or woman has been spared these episodes of diminishment, followed by anger, and then by the realization that she is not entirely powerless. Maryam seizes it, and calls the local official, Mr. Tarek, who has the power to order the paving of the entrance, and the road leading to the clinic. It is apparent that they have spoken about the issue in the past. The conversation begins with Mr. Tarek correcting Maryam’s use of the word “impossible” to describe the lack of access to the clinic. He declares it “difficult,” and not urgent. Maryam ignores his imperious manner and begins to argue for an immediate solution, but Mr. Tarek has already ended the call.
In about six minutes of screen time, Al-Mansour, deftly introduces her character’s circumstances, and the conflicts, in quick succession, that will propel the plot. Her female gaze is felt in the exacting way she represents Maryam’s dawning radicalization, so that it is particular to the character, yet universal in its casting of the characters, and its public setting. Who among us has not felt the sting of humiliation at the hands of a Mr. Ghazi? In The Perfect Candidate, Al Mansour imagines an enlightened future, and an era of female leadership in Saudi Arabia, while gently but firmly delineating the myriad of obstacles women confront every day. Other professional women diminish Maryam’s accomplishments when she stumbles into a campaign for public office, and, like smart, ambitious women all over the world, Maryam is viewed as contentious when she seeks to further her career. A former teacher is obviously repelled by her request for his recommendation.
Maryam returns home from work to the news that her father, a well-known oud player and band leader, will be away for the Eid holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. After years of being confined to teaching and to performing at weddings, because many in the kingdom oppose any sort of public performance art, Abdulaziz and his band have been offered a tour to qualify for the rumored formation of a national orchestra. Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), Maryam, Selma (Dae Al Hilali) and the younger, more conservative sibling, Sara (Nora Al Awad), are grieving the death of the family matriarch. Badria was a singer, and Abdulaziz tells Maryam he fell in love with her voice before he ever met her. The sisters forgive him for abandoning them, hoping the tour will cure his recent bouts of depression.
Al Mansour, who also co-wrote the script for The Perfect Candidate, depicts the strength of family bonds in reversing the small cruelties Maryam is subject to, at the same time gently taking men to task for their absence and neglect. There is a delightful Capraesque quality to this story, as there is to Wadjda (2012), Al Mansour’s semi-autobiographical, debut film, about a 10 year-old Saudi girl who has her heart set on the taboo ownership of a bike. The filmmakers’ optimism, like Frank Capra’s (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), is seated in the healing power of love and faith in God; it is especially apparent in the filmmaker’s choice of music in both of her Saudi films.
In Wadjda, the beautiful verses from the Quran that the girl learns to chant are about God’s love, and in The Perfect Candidate, love songs predominate, despite the lack of romance in the movie. The latter acts as a subtle rebuke of Saudi gender and class bias (hypocrisy is a Capraesque preoccupation, too) because they run so counter to the story. As independent working women, and the children of “wedding singers,” Maryam and her sister Selma, of marrigeable age, harbor no illusions about finding a husband. The promise of these romantic ballads, heard during the wedding parties, where Selma photographs the bride and groom, and Maryam sometimes sings, is undermined by the hyped and highly artificial nature of the celebrations.
Al Mansour received a warm welcome at a press screening of the movie’s North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. Afterward, she fielded the same sort of questions she was asked at press screenings for Wadjda. The audience wanted to discuss the conditions under which Al Mansour made the film. She replied that matters were much-improved, in part because this time she did not have to direct from inside a van, as she did while making Wadjda. A woman seen working together with men would have been subject to arrest in Riyadh. That film did not screen in the kingdom; movie theaters had been shuttered since the mid-1980s. While they have since reopened, The Perfect Candidate has not yet been approved for release.
When I interviewed the writer-director in 2012, I asked her about the humiliation of having to run into a van if someone walked by during production. This was her reply: “If you think about how difficult it is to be a woman in Saudi, you would never do anything! I was focused on achieving a goal. We all need determination.” That is a remark Al Mansour’s hero might repeat if someone asked her what it is like to be a doctor in Saudi Arabia. Focused on her chances for a position in Riyadh, Maryam is to attend medical conference where she hopes to secure an interview. At the airport, she learns about her expired travel documents; Selma suggests seeing Rashid, a cousin with a political position.
When Maryam arrives at his office, she is told he is not meeting with anyone except candidates for the council seat. Maryam signs up, and Rashid is happy to see her, although he warns her that the incumbent, Mr. Tarek, will be hard to beat. He then politely refuses his signature for renewal of Maryam’s travel permit. Maryam has little time to brood over her bad luck—she has to learn how to mount a campaign. Both Selma and Sara are angry over her decision; their mother apparently drew unwanted attention to the family with her singing career. Maryam’s plans will draw the same sort of criticism.
It is difficult for Western audiences, especially those who have never visited a Muslim country, to appreciate how revolutionary Al Mansour’s vision is in The Perfect Candidate. When filming Wadjda in Riyadh, the writer-director received death threats; this time, she opted for village locations where a mixed gender crew was less likely to run afoul of religious or tribal authorities. There is no film infrastructure in the country, so the crew did advance planning, although not the sort of formal scouting that is part of the pre-production process. At TIFF, she recalled a town in which the mayor invited the crew to a party; her assistant director, Gregor Stitzl, was thanked repeatedly for his choice to film there. Al Mansour never corrected the mayor. While most Muslim countries are gender-segregated, Saudi Arabia practices the most austere form of Islam in the Arab world. In addition, tribal traditions can be even more stringent.
In one of the wedding scenes in The Perfect Candidate, a woman angrily approaches Selma as she sets up her camera because she fears it will be aimed at their group. In the all-female pre-wedding celebration, women need not don their abayas and niqabs; when the bride and groom arrive, they must do so, because the women are then in mixed company. Some religious or tribal women cannot be photographed at all, and others cannot be photographed when they are unrobed. Family members can also differ with each other, as Sara does, for instance, when she insists that Maryam cover herself completely when she appears in her campaign video. While women campaign and hold local political office in Saudi Arabia (national appointments are made by the king), in the course of her campaign, Maryam breaks several rules for traditional feminine behavior.
Her defiance in the scene in which she speaks in-person to conservative male voters after a video hook-up fails, would in many areas of Saudi Arabia result in even more severe condemnation than seen in the movie. Maryam also removes her niqab for a T.V. interview, and then verbally counters the narrow-minded attitudes of the host. These serious moments are balanced by funny, intimate ones with the sisters strategizing such matters as fundraising. In researching political campaigns, Maryam turns to YouTube, and a hilarious homemade video that garnered a million views, and features an American candidate running for a local office. The campaign video Selma makes for Maryam goes viral, too, but it also attracts the negative attention they feared, especially from other women.
In the end, Abdulaziz returns from his tour and apologizes to Maryam for his absence. She tells her father that it was not a problem, and that her experience on the campaign trail taught her that she can make her own decisions. Soon, the family is back to their work. Maryam sings at the wedding Selma is photographing, and Abdulaziz arrives to play his oud. In the movie’s denouement, Maryam examines the old man who refused her treatment, and she receives a stunning acknowledgment of her newfound identity. Afterward, she exits the freshly paved clinic to return home, her bright blue car merging slowly into rush-hour traffic, and into the future of the city.
The Match Factory, 101 minutes, in Arabic with English subtitles.
“A Woman’s Voice is her Nakedness: An Interview with Haifaa Al Mansour,” Maria Garcia, Cineaste, Fall 2013. (On JSTOR)